While Appropriations Languish, Congress Passes Landmark Science Authorization
‘COMPETES’ Act Will Bolster Science Education, Research Programs
Despite a lack of progress in August and September towards resolving the veto threat causing a logjam in the FY 2008 federal appropriations process,1 many in the science advocacy community did have reason to celebrate. In early August, the President signed into law a landmark science and education authorization bill aimed at bolstering U.S. innovation and preserving American competitiveness.
The 288-page bill, the “America Creating Opportunities to Meaningfully Promote Excellence in Technology, Education, and Science (COMPETES) Act” (H.R. 2272), represents a compilation of virtually every major piece of innovation- or competitiveness-related legislation introduced in either the House or the Senate over the past two years. The overarching goal of the bill was to enact the recommendations of the National Academies’ December 2005 study Rising Above the Gathering Storm, which raised red flags all over Washington when it warned Congress that unless decisive action was taken to bolster U.S. science, technology, engineering and mathematics education and research support, the United States was in great danger of losing its competitive edge.
The bill (now Public Law 110-69) takes two basic routes to fostering the innovation the country will require to stay competitive in an increasingly global world. It addresses federal support for research—both authorizing large amounts of new funding for three key science agencies (National Science Foundation, NIST, and the Department of Energy’s Office of Science), setting a target to double those agencies’ budgets over seven years, and by creating a new high-risk research agency at the Department of Energy (called the Advanced Research Projects Agency – Energy, or ARPA-E, in a nod to the DARPA-like character Congress hopes the agency will adopt). And the bill addresses a diversity of Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) Education efforts, authorizing $43 billion over the next three years to bolster federal STEM education programs ranging from K-12 teacher programs, to new opportunities for undergraduate and graduate STEM students and efforts to improve the participation of underrepresented groups in the STEM fields.
In addition, the bill contains two particularly noteworthy provisions of interest to the computing community.
The first is the inclusion in H.R. 2272 of the High-Performance Computing Research and Development Act. The HPC R&D act has been proposed in various forms in every session of Congress since the 106th (the current Congress is the 110th) and has never gained the full approval of the Congress—almost always for reasons unrelated to the bill. The bill has, in sessions past, been approved by the House, only to languish in the Senate due to jurisdictional fights over other bills; been approved by the House Science committee, only to run afoul of budget disputes with the GOP Leadership; and been held hostage over fights about NASA between the House and Senate. In fact, until the approval of the conference report in late July, it was assumed that this version of the HPC R&D Act might meet a similar fate as word escaped that some of the Senate conferees thought its inclusion might cause some jurisdictional friction between two Senate committees (Energy and Commerce, that both claim HPC jurisdiction). But those problems were resolved, and the bill includes a version of the bill that was passed overwhelmingly by the House early this session, plus an extra section that authorizes efforts in “Advanced Information and Communications Technology Research” at NSF, including research on:
- affordable broadband access, including wireless technologies;
- network security and reliability;
- communications interoperability;,
- networking protocols and architectures, including resilience to outages or attacks;
- trusted software;
- nanoelectronics for communications applications;
- low-power communications electronics;
- implementation of equitable access to national advanced fiber optic research and educational networks in noncontiguous States; and
- other areas the Director [of NSF] finds appropriate.
The provision also allows NSF to fund multiyear, multidisciplinary “Centers for Communications Research” to “generate innovative approaches to problems in information and communications technology research.”
Otherwise, the HPC R&D Act remained essentially unchanged from the House version, which included two particular provisions worth noting: it requires the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy to develop and maintain a research, development, and deployment roadmap for the provision of federal high-performance computing systems; and there’s now an explicit requirement that the President’s advisory committee for IT (now the President’s Council of Advisors for Science and Technology (or PCAST)) review not only the goals of the federal Networking and Information Technology Research and Development program, but the funding levels as well and report the results of that review to Congress every two years.
The second noteworthy provision in the COMPETES bill is one that was originally included in the House-passed NSF Authorization Act of 2007 (H.R. 1867), that should help clarify NSF’s role in supporting efforts that seek to encourage the participation of women and underrepresented groups in computing, science, technology, engineering and mathematics. As CRA has noted previously2, this is a response to long-standing concerns from CRA and other members of the computing and science communities about NSF’s general policy of only supporting “novel approaches” (rather than sustained approaches) to increasing participation in STEM fields. As a result of NSF’s policy, many successful efforts have had to completely rework their programs so as to appear novel enough to qualify for renewed funding from NSF—an outcome that, to many in the community, represented a serious waste of effort and inefficient use of time and funding. The House Science and Technology Committee agreed, and included language in the NSF Authorization that addressed the issue by allowing the NSF Director to review such programs one year before their grants expire and issue extensions of up to three years, without re-competition, to those efforts that appear to be successful at meeting their stated goals. The committee also emphasized that it believes this sort of effort—maintaining the strength and vitality of the U.S. science and engineering workforce—is appropriately part of the agency’s mission. That language was ultimately approved as part of the NSF Authorization and was included without change in the COMPETES Act.
While passage of the COMPETES Act has given many in the science advocacy reason to celebrate, it is certainly not the end of innovation efforts in the Congress or the Administration. Though this bill sets significant funding targets for NSF, NIST and DOE Office of Science, it does not actually appropriate any funding itself, so the focus continues to be on House and Senate appropriators as they wind their way through the appropriations process later this year. There will also be further efforts to address some of the pieces of the various innovation agendas that are not represented in H.R. 2272—like a permanent extension of the R&D tax credit.
But the bill does represent a big victory for the science community—one that was a long time coming for many who have been working these issues around Washington over the better part of the last decade. As we wrote on the Computing Research Policy Blog on August 8, 2007: “We commend the President and the Congress for having the vision and the commitment to push ahead on these issues, even when it didn’t seem as politically popular as it is today. And we commend the members of the science community for speaking up on these issues, serving on the advisory committees, and participating in the grassroots efforts to make Congress aware of the issues. Now, just make sure you go out and do world-leading science—take risks, think audaciously . . . demonstrate as you’ve done so well in the past why America needs to continue to be an incubator for invention, discovery, and innovation.”
For the latest on the FY 2008 Appropriations process and its effect on computing research funding, see the Computing Research Policy Blog at https://cra.org/blog.
¹ For more on the root of the logjam, see “Key Appropriations, Authorization on Track; But Veto Threat Could Put Science Funding in Doubt” in the September 2007 edition of Computing Research News.
² See http://www.cra.org/govaffairs/blog/archives/000582.html.